A Lap Full of Spots

Through the years, Dalmations have played many roles - caoch dogs, firehouse dogs, even lap dogs

IT isn't too hard to spot a Dalmation.

For a start there's the way they rush up and greet you - you, their long lost friend - as soon as they know your are an authentic visitor in their domain. No matter that they've never met you before. You are made to feel overwhelmingly at home, greeted and feted, celebrated and welcomed.

Then there's the way they wash you. They start with your hands, but soon move on to your chin, your nose, stretching their elegant necks upward with disarming affection, almost like canine swans, tongue busy with kind attentions. There's no escape. You might as well be one of their puppies, in need of a thoroughly good maternal cleanup. You must endure. To do otherwise would quite clearly be to flout Dalmation etiquette.

Then there's the relentless way they eye the piece of tea-time cake in your hand. You had thought it was meant entirely for you. But the eyes inform otherwise. Dalmations' eyes are knowing, concentrated, keen - super-keen when there's cake. They also suggest vulnerability. They say: "You realize, don't you, that we Dalmations are sensitive flowers and can be easily dismayed?" This isn't true at all. It's a ruse - because, at the same time, these eyes are just daring you with witty boldness to ignore thei r importunity.

This is a form of exquisitely refined emotional blackmail, and what it means is: "If you don't give me at least a third of that delectable-looking portion of raspberry-and-cream sponge, don't think that I will withdraw the extreme and impartial affection I bear you; never fear, you will still be the human I love better than any other in the cosmos. But if you should happen, with what I know is your characteristic generosity, to share that too rapidly diminishing piece of cake with yours truly, then I wil l double, perhaps even t-r-e-b-l-e my adoration for you. Really, even a tiny crumb will suffice ... M-m-m, gulp, thanks, any more?

Then there is the way they sit on you. This is one of their most enchanting and decided traits. As with cake, so with sofas or armchairs: These are things for sharing. Dog beds are all right so far as they go. Human accommodation is better - settee, couch, divan, you name it. But human laps are the tops ... laptops.

Eleanor Frankling, in her authoritative, much reprinted and revised book "The Dalmation," wrote about this quality while she was discussing the various depictions of Dalmations in past art. She refers to a late 17th-century painting called "Hunting Dogs and Their Attendants."

In the foreground of this exuberant painting are two Dalmations, one of whom is in "I-am-getting-quickly-on-your-lap" mode. The boy who is being climbed upon is not much larger than the dog is. But that's not the point. Judgment of appropriate scale seems not to be a strong point when it comes to lap-climbing.

Frankling says the dog in the painting has "a typical Dalmation attitude ... for many Dalmations believe themselves to be lap dogs, and get as much of their anatomy as possible on to the knees of their friends."

And then their spots. Didn't I mention them? (These come in black, but also in brown, or liver as it is known.)

In a book that has done more to popularize Dalmations than any other (with a little help from Walt Disney), author Dodie Smith describes her heroes, Pongo and Missis, as they go for a walk with their humans, Mr. and Mrs. Dearly, to celebrate the news that Missis is soon to produce puppies.

The book is of course "The Hundred and One Dalmations." Smith writes: "The Dearlys led the way .... Then came the Pongos, looking noble; they could both have become Champions if Mr. Dearly had not felt that dog shows would bore them - and him. They had splendid heads, fine shoulders, strong legs, and straight tails. The spots on their bodies were jet-black and mostly the size of a two-shilling piece; they had smaller spots on their heads, legs, and tails. Their noses and eye-rims were black .... They wal ked side by side with great dignity, only putting the Dearlys on the leash to lead them over crossings."

This description of Pongo and Missis touches on some of the standards expected of Dalmations as show dogs. There are, however, plenty of anecdotes about them to indicate that as a breed they do not find dog shows a bore. It seems they can fairly relish competition and show off accordingly. Absence of an audience or other Dalmations to compete with can make them lose interest, however.

BEING by nature (and breeding?) a mutt-man myself, I admit to finding the dedication of Dal fanciers (as I believe they call themselves) to the perfect specimen half admirable and half funny. I admire it as I admire any idealism. But by the same token an obsessive concern for "scissor bite" or "elastic pads" - not to mention "fine texture" in ears and a "moderate amount of stop" in the head and skull, and no "wrinkle" - does have its comic side. This is especially so when you consider how the humans dema nding such physical perfection can be all shapes and sizes themselves. We do to the canine species what we would resist to the death if it were to be applied, by geneticists in the pay of a tyrant, to humans.

One aspect of dog showing (whether Dalmations, poodles, Weimaraners, or whatever) that I do greatly enjoy, however, is the naming of the dogs. Invariably the kennel name is far too unwieldy to be used in normal daily communication. You can hardly stop your dog chasing the neighbor's cat up his highest pine if you have to address him in full. "Tally Ho Sirius, stop that!" or "Tweedle Dum of the Wells, come down at once!"

And if you think I have invented these names, I haven't. Nor could I possibly have dreamed up "Hannah of the Harbour," "Tobias of the Towpath," or "Clef of the Carriageway."

Now and then one comes across Dalmation names that seem especially apt - "Snow Leopard" seems a good one; "Sugarfrost Buttons and Bows" isn't impossible; and "Olbero Organized Confusion" seems conceptually, if not verbally, nearer to the dogs I know.

Owners of top Dalmations have sometimes alluded in their choice of registerable names to the historic role of these wonderful dogs as "carriage dogs." Pictures show them prancing along by the horse-drawn carriages of their aristocratic owners of yesteryear.

Two wood-engraved tail pieces by the great 18th-century English engraver and naturalist Thomas Bewick depict such spotted dogs, as does one of his main illustrations, and it is in this book, "History of Quadrupeds" that the first firm insistence of the name Dalmation appears in print. It says "The Dalmation, or coach dog ... is very common in this country at present; and is frequently kept in genteel houses, as an elegant attendant on a carriage."

The Dalmation was frequently kept with the horses, in the stables. Just as individual sheep have been known to become inseparable friends with horses, so have the dogs.

A friend of mine who owns a delightful Dalmation (named Emma) remembers, when she lived in Canada as a young girl, that her first-known Dalmations, Spot and Domino, were always around the stables.

Beverley Pisano, in her 1990 book "Dalmations," writes: "What could have been more natural than for the firemen to adopt the Dalmation as their mascot in the days of the horse-drawn fire-engines?" And she claims that "there is hardly a firehouse that doesn't have the coach dog as its pet and companion for the men."

Most Dalmations today are surely just pets. I asked Emma's owner why she favors Dalmations. "Oh!" she exclaimed, ecstasy suffusing her voice, "whenever I'm driving along in the car and I see a Dalmation, I just go all wobbly!!" What this does to her driving I didn't like to inquire. But she then tried to explain further: "They have wonderful carriage. And a wonderful smile. And happy tails."

Not all Dalmations wag their tails as readily as Emma does. She just can't stop. Even when having her claws clipped, which she dislikes so intensely that it takes two people to stop her bolting, her tail still wags. Emma's Dalmation predecessor (also named Emma) was probably more typical of the "courtesy" that some say is a Dalmation trait. She could be a little standoffish until she got to know you. But today's Emma "loves everyone."

WHICH brings me back to Dalmations as lap dogs.

Visiting Emma's household one day, I made the mistake of wearing a navy blue woolen sweater. Emma sat all over me for much of our visit. It took three weeks before I had removed from the interstices of every remote reach of that sweater the last of the several billion short white hairs that had insinuated themselves inextricably therein, like minuscule porcupine quills.

"It's their only fault," admits Emma's owner. "They do shed all the time."

Perhaps there is an untried role for Dalmations today, now that horsedrawn carriages are no longer a frequent sight. Supposing banks all kept Dalmations. Instead of acting as watchdogs (which they are certainly good at), they would just be expected to "love everyone." Then if a bank raid occurred, the resident Emma would leap, in character, straight into the lap of the masked perpetrator. The effect would be better than any video camera or fingerprint. You could easily spot that thief by his (Dalmationed ) sweater.

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